Sunday, April 18, 2010

A People's Railway is just the ticket


This column of mine appears in the Morning Star.

"Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"
"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
"The dog did nothing in the night-time."
"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.


Rather like the non-barking dog in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic detective story Silver Blaze, the most curious incident regarding our three main parties manifesto promises on Britain's railways is not what they have said, but what they haven't said.

The Labour Party boasts of its commitment to "a new high-speed rail line linking North and South" and says it will "press ahead with a major investment programme in existing rail services." Labour will "encourage more people to switch to rail" and promises to "treble the number of secure cycle storage spaces at rail stations."

The Tories pledge to "reform our railways to provide a better focus on tackling problems that matter most to passengers, like overcrowding." They will "grant longer, more flexible franchises to incentivise private sector investment in improvements like longer trains and better stations."

The Lib Dems, meanwhile, promise a "rail renaissance, reopening closed railway lines and new stations and building a high-speed network to cut journey times to Scotland and the north of England."

Have you spotted something? Not one of our three major parties mentions the single most important measure that would improve our fragmented, unreliable and ludicrously expensive railway network - taking the entire network back into public ownership.

Seeing that over 70 per cent of the public want to bring back British Rail, you would have thought that at least one of our three leading parties would advocate such a measure.

But in the same way that the non-barking dog revealed to Sherlock Holmes the solution to the mystery of Silver Blaze, so the parties' reluctance to even discuss renationalisation reveals to us the sordid truth about British "democracy." Namely, that it isn't the people who decide what gets into party manifestos, but capital.


LET'S LOOK TO AUSTRIA

The difference between how a publicly owned transport system and a privately owned one operates was graphically illustrated to my family and I on a recent journey back from Austria.

We were staying for a few days in a little town in the Alps. We took a train from the town to Salzburg's main railway station. The journey lasted two-and-three-quarter hours and cost just over 9 euros (£7.90) each. The train had plenty of free seats and we had legroom which seemed to be almost double the size of that we get on trains back home in Britain.

We then took a bus from Salzburg railway station to Salzburg airport, a 20-minute ride which cost 2 euros (£1.75) each. The train was punctual to the second, as was the bus.

Indeed, in all my journeys in Austria down the years I have never known a train or bus to be late, despite them sometimes having to deal with atrocious winter weather conditions.

How different to the way transport operates in privatised Britain.

On arriving back at our British airport, we were informed that the National Express coach to take us home would not be arriving as it had broken down. We, along with the other passengers, had to wait another 25 minutes before another coach, picked us up to take us to Luton airport, from where we had to change to get on yet another coach.

Almost every time I or a family member travels with National Express, something likes this happens. How is that Austria's State Railways and the country's Postbuses can operate so efficiently, while National Express is so dreadful?

Neoliberals love to claim that anything run by the state is inefficient and anything privately run is efficient. In fact very often the opposite is true.

What makes the National Express travel experience even more galling is the knowledge that the company has received around £2.5bn in taxpayers' subsidies over the past 10 years - and it pays us back with such an appalling service.

As RMT general secretary Bob Crow says, National Express has been taking us all for a ride - though not a very punctual or comfortable one.

Things could get even worse. Thatcherite fanatics in the EU Commission seem hell-bent on destroying Europe's excellent public transport and in the name of "increasing competition" force through, against the public's wishes, the privatisation of railway and bus services.

The prospect of rip-off, inefficient British companies like National Express running trains and buses in Austria at some time in the future is a truly appalling one. It falls to us to build a pan-European pro-public ownership movement to make sure it never happens.

TARGETTING HUNGARIAN RAILWAYS

Hungary's state-owned railway MAV has had a tough time of it in the past few years. Starved of investment by the country's faux-left, ultra-Blairite government, around 10 per cent of lines have been closed and ticket prices have risen sharply. But despite the very welcome defeat of Hungary's corrupt, serial-privatising and pro-war "Socialists" at the weekend, worse could be to come not just for MAV but for Hungary's long-suffering people.

Ninety-three heirs of Hungarian Holocaust survivors have filed a lawsuit at a Chicago court against MAV for $240 million damages and $1 billion non-asset compensation.

They claim that MAV had provided its carriages being fully aware that these would be used to transport 437,000 Jews to the gas chambers in Auschwitz in 1944 and accused the company of looting their ancestors' possessions. The case is due to be heard on April 22.

The Holocaust was an unspeakably heinous crime, but is it right that in 2010 Hungary's railways should be held responsible for the atrocities of Hungary's pro-nazi collaborationist government nearly 70 years ago?

If the lawsuit succeeds it will not only mean the end of MAV and job losses for its 20,000 employees, but, as the railway is in public hands, even more hardship for ordinary Hungarians, who are reeling after years of cutbacks in health care, pensions and welfare provision.

With poverty and malnutrition rising in Hungary, the cuts in public spending which would follow the success of the lawsuit would inevitably lead to the premature deaths of innocent people who had nothing whatsoever to do with the horrible events of World War II.

It's good to hear that Jewish community leader Peter Feldmajer has criticised the lawsuit, saying: "No legal action can be brought against MAV on moral grounds."

Even if it does win the case, cash-strapped MAV has resigned itself to spending up to 45m forints (around £150,000) on legal fees to defend itself against the lawsuit.

Hopefully common sense will prevail and, instead of facing closure or more cutbacks, Hungary's state railway will win the case and get a better deal from the country's new leadership.

2 comments:

Mr. Piccolo said...

Great post, Mr. Clark. What is so galling about privatization, as you point out, is that it really doesn't foster competition as much as guarantee to well-connected private firms all kinds of perks, from virtual or actual monopoly status that allows them to gouge the public, to state subsidies.

Sometimes I think the privatization crusade was more about hurting public sector unions and allowing private firms to feast at the public trough than any principled commitment to "free-market" economics.

Steven said...

Neil - Re the MAV lawsuit, it´s interesting that it being made in the US where courts have grown used to the idea that they have global jurisdiction. I don´t see why MAV should spend one penny to defend themselves against this nonsense. It would be a different story if the charges were brought in a Hungarian court.